Does Fourth Grade Predict Kids' Futures?

In nine days when the school bell rings at 2:20 p.m. here in New York City, my daughter will officially become a fourth grader. According to a growing body of psychological research, her experiences with her peers in this grade could reveal what her life as an adult will be like.

When researchers ask kids in the fourth grade to tell them which of their classmates they like the most and who they dislike the most, they can then reliably place them into one of five "likeability" categories of children: Accepted, Rejected, Neglected, Controversial, and Average. Surprisingly, these groups stay mostly the same as kids grow up, allowing researchers to make pretty accurate predictions of kids' grown-up lives—not just about their friends, but about their health and careers, too. There is even some evidence to suggest that how likeable we were in elementary school affects how we parent our own children, and how liked they will be as they grow up.

Which of these categories were you in in fourth grade? What category do you see your child in?

"Accepted" Kids These are the ones picked by virtually all of their peers as someone that is liked the most, and almost never picked as someone that others dislike. Accepted kids have a very different life than the other groups. They are confident and optimistic, comfortable developing new relationships at work and in their personal lives, and use it to their advantage. They are leaders, social butterflies, and have close relationships with friends and family. They believe their life has meaning and they are flourishing.

"Rejected" Kids The opposite of the accepted kids, these children are often picked as disliked and rarely picked as liked. Research suggests they are up to twice as likely to experience depression or anxiety as an adult. They make less money than others with similar experience and have more difficulty finding a stable romantic partner—and feel less secure or worthy of love when in relationships. Being rejected as a kid has changed their brain wiring in ways that make them process the world differently, thinking others are being mean to them even when they are not, and care more about praise and reassurance from others than being happy with themselves. Being rejected can even triggered dormant DNA in their cells to increase the risk for inflammatory disease later in life.

"Neglected" Kids These kids are very rarely picked as liked or disliked; other kids don't notice them much at all. They are the most likely to switch groups as they grow up, and surprisingly, many of these kids turn out to be pretty OK. A neglected fourth grader is just as likely to be Neglected, Accepted, or Rejected by high school. If playing by themselves was their choice, then they are probably content with forging their own path in life. If they were neglected because they were too apprehensive to approach others, however, then they are likely to experience significant anxiety throughout life. Research suggests dating was probably not easy for them, and that they are likely to choose careers that minimize scary social situations.

"Controversial" Kids The opposite of neglected kids, these children are known by everyone, but in a love-hate kind of way: Peers like and dislike them in pretty equal numbers. If physically attractive, controversial kids become the popular kids in high school who bully others to stay that way. They use drugs earlier in life and their chances of teenage pregnancy are higher than others. As adults, research says they struggle more with addiction and are more focused on beauty and power than others. They often even look older than adults who are the same age.

"Average" Kids This group is the rest of the kids, but most tend to veer towards one of the other groups.

I don't know about you, but reading the descriptions of these groups is terrifying. It brings back some unpleasant memories from school as I try to figure out which group I was in—probably Rejected or Neglected in fourth grade, and then moving to Accepted in high school, when I made a group of friends who I am still in touch with 20-plus years later.

How is that affecting how I parent my daughter? I think I'm probably more concerned than I should be that she make friends and be well liked, so she doesn't experience what I did. I want other kids to like her, and I want her to be kind to her peers. What about you?

Ellen Sturm Niz is a New York City-based editor and writer who is taking this 20-minute survey to help researchers understand more about how these likability groups affect our futures. Follow Ellen on Twitter and Pinterest.

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Image via Shutterstock

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